Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The subtle humor which suffuses Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz is apparent from the first chapter when Brother Francis first encounters a Jewish traveler who he mistakes for a pilgrim while the monk is on a vigil in the desert. A Canticle for Leibowitz is much more than an humorous novel. It examines the meaning of faith against the backdrop of nuclear holocaust.
So often in science fiction, religion is treated as a subject of ridicule, satire and scorn. A Canticle for Leibowitz is refreshing in that it looks at the Catholic Church as a viable, eternal entity. The fact that Miller's Church remains essentially the same in the 26th, 32nd and 38th century as it was in the Middle Ages does not, in fact, detract from its appearance in the story.
The first section of the novel, Fiat Homo, which originally appeared in a shorter version in Fantasy and Science Fiction (April 1955), deals with the discovery by a novice, Francis Gerard, of a tomb which may or may not contain relics of his order's founder, the Blessed Leibowitz. Throughout this section the question of what Francis actually encountered in the desert and whether or not Leibowitz would be canonized a saint are used to demonstrate the strength of Francis's faith in the face of a variety of obstacles.
Fiat Lux picks up the story five centuries later. Civilization has begun to rebuild itself from the dark period when Brother Francis made his journey to New Rome. Scholars, like Thon Taddeo, are now doing research at colleges and have some understanding of the knowledge which existed before the Deluge occurred. While Fiat Homo examined the existence of faith, Fiat Lux is more concerned with the flow of history and the inaccuracies of the study of the past. Doubt is the tool used by Thon Taddeo to discover what actually happened to the great European-American civilization which once rose and fell.
The final section of A Canticle for Leibowitz, "Fiat Voluntas Tua," takes place in a world which has far surpassed our own technologically. Intrasystem spaceflight is reasonably common and the first interstellar colonies are being set up at Alpha Centauri. The section begins with a nuclear explosion and fears of another nuclear war, but Miller's main focus is on when, if ever, suicide is a viable option. The government has set up an euthanasia station near the monastery of St. Leibowitz and Abbot Zerchi comes into conflict with Dr. Cors over suicide. This segment becomes even more poignant in light of Miller's own death by suicide in January 1997.
The three sections of A Canticle for Leibowitz taken together give a cyclical view of history which is extremely pessimistic. Even knowledge of the past can't save humanity from repeating the same mistakes. This cyclical view, however, also lends an optimistic feel to the novel, for it means that humanity will survive its foibles and rise from the ashes. Even as the world is destroyed by fire, hope for the continuance of the human race exists.
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